Should We Be Riding Elephants in Thailand?

By: leelefever on June 22, 2006 - 3:48am

Among travelers to Thailand (myself included) and readers of posts like this, a few questions come to mind. They include:

Should we be riding around on elephants?  Isn’t the elephant being exploited? Is it inhumane for elephants to be used for tourism?

Of course we all wish the elephants could live in the wild and be undisturbed by humans.  However, for about the last 4500 years, elephants have been captured, domesticated and used for transportation, labor and even warfare.   For thousands of years, the elephant has been living with and around humans and over that time we humans have learned the requirements for ensuring that the relationship is stable and productive.  One of the outgrowths of these years of domestication is the role of mahout, which is the elephant’s trainer- an essential and vital role for the elephant and human.  For the last three days, I learned a little about being a mahout and his relationship with the elephant. These are mahouts with their elephants at the Thai  Elephant Conservation Center:

The mahout has a unique relationship with the elephant- one that can last decades.  When an elephant is born into domestication, it is assigned a mahout who will be responsible for the elephant for the mahout’s whole life.  In fact, some elephants outlive their mahouts (elephants can live 80+ years) and the elephant is then often passed down to the mahout’s son. As you might imagine, a strong bond develops between the mahout and the elephant that goes beyond trainer and animal.  When I asked about the nature of the relationship, it was described as companionship.  The elephant seeks the company of the mahout and feels at home with the mahout on his back- they are a lifelong team.

As I experienced, the relationship is not one purely of hugs and treats.  As dog owners know, a dog seeks to be the alpha (dominant) dog in the family and if it perceives that it has reached this role, it will become less trainable and try to dominate the humans. The same basic idea is true with the elephants.  The mahout must maintain a relationship with the elephant that ensures that the elephant is not dominant, but submissive to the mahout.  A dominant elephant can be lethal.

How do you dominate an elephant? Unfortunately, is partially through pain, or at least the threat of pain.  Elephants are incredible heavy, strong, willful and tough animals. In order for the mahout to be able to train the elephant, he must have some way to send positive and negative messages.  Along with voice commands and touching, the tool of choice for mahouts is an ominous looking pointed metal hook called an ankus. This hook is used to guide the elephant and to correct poor behavior.  Though it seems a bit barbaric to the layperson, this evolved over many years and ensures that the elephant and mahout have mutual respect. 

For hundreds of years in Thailand, elephants were domesticated for working in the logging industry.  Their mahouts trained them to do the heavy lifting required in moving logs.  While not necessarily a happy existence for the animals, it ensured that the mahout could have money to feed and care for the elephant. In 1989 the Thai government banned commercial logging in Thailand. This event left many mahouts and elephants unemployed and forced some onto the streets of Bangkok. Keeping an unemployed elephant fed and cared-for is no easy task and often means disaster for the mahout and his family. Suddenly, the elephants became more of a liability than a source of income and many elephants were abandoned or killed in a sad turn of events.  Today there are between 3-5000 elephants in Thailand (domestic and wild) and their numbers are falling about 3% a year. 

Today, many elephants have found a new home by working in the eco-tourism industry.  Elephants that are sufficiently trained and mild-mannered can now be supported through tourism.  By offering rides through the jungle, elephant shows and elephant education, the mahouts and their elephants can support themselves without the logging industry.  For many elephants, working conditions are greatly improved and as more tourists come to Thailand more elephants can be supported.

The Thai Elephant Conservation Center was created by the government to educate the public about elephants and works to ensure their survival in the future.  Part of the center’s mission is to promote the elephant as an element of eco-tourism- an element that is healthy, sustainable and promotes increased understanding of the animals.  Unfortunately, a lot of work needs to be done.  Elephant numbers are declining and there are many sick and starving elephants in Thailand with no means of support.

So, to return to the original questions…

Should we be riding around on these animals?  Isn’t the elephant being exploited? Is it inhumane for elephants to be used for tourism?

Of course, this is a personal decision.  I realize that many readers will not ride an elephant on principle alone.  However, I hope that I’ve provided information here that illustrates a bit of the complex circumstances of the elephants in Thailand. It is my perspective that by becoming educated about domestic elephants and choosing to patronize respectable eco-tourism operators in Thailand, you can have a positive impact on the precarious situation of these beautiful animals. Your tourist dollars can help.

See also: My experiences with the  3 day Mahout Training at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center.

3 Day Mahout Training, Thai Elephant Conservation Center

By: leelefever on June 22, 2006 - 3:13am

I return from 3 days of learning about elephant training more of an elephant lover and with more mixed feelings about the life of the domestic elephant.

The Thai Elephant Conservation Center offers a multi-day mahout training course that enables a tourist to live at the center for 3 days to learn about elephants and elephant training, their relationship with their trainer (the mahout) and general elephant/mahout life.  The course includes accommodation for 2 nights, 5 meals and all instruction for about $125.   Below is one day in the mahout training program.

6am: Awake from our basic bungalow style houses and don our very flattering mahout uniforms- blue denim pants that tie at the waist and a button-down shirt.  I remark that I look like a prisoner.

6:30am: Me, Yuri (from Japan) and Kristine (from San Jose, California) follow the mahouts in pouring rain over a mile into the forest to collect the elephants that had been kept their overnight.  One of the mahouts finds this wicked looking scarab beetle. 

7:00am: The mahout “Tit” and I reach Lu Khan, my elephant for 3 days.  The 50 feet of chain that kept her in place overnight is stretched to the full length and she shows excitement as we approach. much of the vegetation surrounding her is either flattened or eaten.  Lu Khan is covered with dirt that she threw onto herself overnight to cool down and keep the flies away.  Tit has Lu Khan lay down with the command “map long” and he uses his machete to scrape away the dirt and unchains her from the tree.

7:10am:  I mount Lu Khan for the trip home.  During the trek she willfully veers off course to grab some greenery just off the trail.  She is graceful in the mud, taking every step carefully and never slipping down hills.  I think that she is the best all-terrain vehicle ever.


7:30am: Between the jungle and the Conservation Center, we wade through a river for one of her 3 baths of the day.  She completely submerges herself as the mahout and I scrub the remaining dirt off her hide.  I get completely soaked.  It’s easy to tell she loves the water.

7:50am: We arrive at the center and Lu Khan gets fresh water and sugar cane while we scrub her even more.  Tit and Lu Khan disappear and Yuri, Kristine and I have breakfast after a quick change of clothes.

9am:  We meet back at show grounds for training.  I practice with Tit and Lu Khan.  A command of “Song Soong!” causes Lu Khan to pick up her right leg, enabling me to climb up her using an ear and handful of tough skin. “Tag Loong” enables me to slide off the front of her head.  It’s obvious that my commands don’t matter- she only really listens to Tit, her mahout for the last 9 years.  After practice she eats bananas and more sugar cane with me on her neck along with dried bananas.  As soon as I get the package of dried bananas, her trunk appears in front of me, begging for some and breathing elephant breath on my face.  Mmm elephant breath.

9:30am: All the elephants and mahouts (including us students) meet near the back of the center for more eating.  The elephants steal food out of one another’s mouths with no protest. The mahouts lounge on their elephants so comfortably it looks like they could take a nap. I’m not quite so comfortable.  

9:45am: A crowd of spectators gathers near the river beside the center and we ride the elephants into the river for bath #2.  This one is mostly for the crowd, but it doesn’t matter to Lu Khan.  I get soaked again as I do my best to throw more water to clean her hide.  Some elephants spray each other and the mahouts are pre-occupied with a snake that has been sighted on the other side of the river. We appear in many pictures.

10am:  The elephants and mahouts ride through the crowd to the show grounds where they show the crowd a few tricks, how they move logs and some cheesy things like painting and playing music.  The next day I will be part of the show, but not today.

10:45am:  The show ends and I mount Lu Khan while she eats more.  Then more practice.  The elephants are chained by the foot near food if they are not currently involved with the mahout.

12:00 Eat Lunch- Home cooked fried rice.

1:00pm:  We walk to the elephant hospital with an English speaking guide.  I am grateful to have access to him as Tit knows little English and I had many questions.  The hospital has about 10 elephants.  3 with deformities, one with a gunshot wound, a couple in “poor condition”.  The biggest problem for elephants is constipation, which can easily kill them.  Judging from the amount of pooh they create, this is not surprising. We learn that the numbers of Thai Elephants are declining and the hospital does not have the money it needs.

2:30pm:  We meet the mahouts to return the elephants to the park where they stay overnight.  A few lengths of chain is placed around Lu Khan’s neck and she knows what is happening and is visibly excited- ears flapping, tail wagging.  I mount her and off we go.

2:50pm:  It’s time for the 3rd bath of the day on the way to the jungle.  Once again, I get soaked to the bone with a huge smile on my face.

3:10pm:  Tit picks out a spot of the hillside where Lu Khan will spend the night (he uses a new spot each night).  He ties the chain to a tree and also attaches her front feet together with a small amount of chain. She can walk and move around, but not aggressively.  This prevents her from breaking the chain and is the hardest sight for me to bear.  For the rest of the night she will graze in the area until she lays down to sleep, when she will yawn and dream, just like us.  

3:45pm:  Tit invites us back to his house in the mahout village.  His family lives in a modest home that he built himself. I can see through the floorboards to the dogs and chickens below.  In addition to being a mahout, he fixes motorbikes.  He has a proud picture of a young 4 year old Lu Khan displayed on his wall, like a proud father.  Tit repairs a motorbike while we are there.  We walk back to the bungalow and rest until dinner.  This is Tit- notice pictures of Lu Khan in the background.

 This is his house in the mahout village:

6pm:  We meet at one of the homes and start chopping vegetables over shots of home made rice whiskey that one of the mahouts made.  It is red and tastes like cough syrup. We eat a basil chicken dish along with rice and stir fried veggies.  Very good food served on the floor of the open air kitchen area.  After dinner we watch world cup soccer and play cards with a few mahouts before going to bed.

10:45pm: Retire to bed and wait for the rain to come, as it does every few hours. Look forward to waking at 6am to collect the elephants back in the jungle.

The experience at the Conservation Center was very enjoyable and I learned a lot but I have to admit that I feel a little sorry for domestic elephants in general.  My attraction to elephants comes from a feeling that they are like dogs and through domestication have developed a bond with humans that is special in the animal kingdom.  I hate to think about them being mistreated or unhappy.

Though they are very well cared-for at the center, their size and potential for destruction requires that they lead a life in bondage- chained to a tree or the floor consistenly. Being domesticated from birth, this lifestyle is a reality to the elephant in the way that a dog is kept in a kennel or a rabbit in a cage.  I left with the feeling that the elephants at the center are quite happy, but there are many in the country (and world) that are not so happy and it pains me to think of the life they lead.  Thankfully, organizations like the Thai Elephant Conservation Center are working to raise awareness and educate people about the plight of these incredible animals. 

See Also:  Should We Be Riding Around On Elephants in Thailand? 

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